How to Self-Study an A-Level
Although it’s a lot of hard work, the advantages go beyond simply gaining a qualification: through self-study, you develop invaluable skills and traits, such as the ability to motivate yourself and to take responsibility for your own education. It shows initiative and drive, and both universities and employers will be impressed by this. In this article, we look at the reasons for which you might want to self-study one or more A-levels, discuss the pros and cons of different ways of going about it, and give you some top tips for going about it successfully.
Why self-study an A-level?
There are several reasons for which you might choose to teach yourself an A-level (or indeed more than one A-level), and they vary according to your circumstances and stage of life. Below, we’ve outlined the main circumstances under which most people choose to self-study A-levels, looking at the various factors that typically motivate people to do so.
Self-studying an A-level while at school
The primary focus of this article will be on self-studying an extra A-level while you’re still at school, alongside your normal programme of studies. There are many possible reasons for doing this, including the following:
Your school may have told you that you can only take a certain number of A-levels, but you want to boost your university application by having an additional A-level to add to your UCAS form.
You want to take a more unusual subject not offered at your school, such as Philosophy, Law, Classical Civilisations and so on. This may be particularly advantageous if you’re planning to do a degree in a subject you’ve not studied before, and for which your school offers no relevant A-levels.
It may not be possible to take a desired A-level option because of a timetabling clash at school.
You want to set yourself a challenge.
If any of these reasons apply to you, we’ll give you more advice on how to go about self-studying for an extra A-level later in this article.
Did you know that it’s not actually the law that you have to go to school, provided that you’re receiving an education through other means? Some parents choose to educate their children at home, setting their own curriculum and supervising their children’s learning themselves. This gets more complicated when the child reaches the age for taking formal qualifications (namely GCSEs and A-levels), as these involve sticking to a prescribed curriculum and taking exams to prove their academic level. This necessitates self-studying GCSEs and A-levels via distance learning courses, taking exams at a local school via one of the exam boards.
Because of the extra organisation required in self-studying for these exams (you don’t get a timetable like you do at school), many home-schooled children take their GCSEs and A-levels spread out over more years than those who are at school; they might take a few a year or two early, a few when everyone else in their age group is taking them, and perhaps a few a year later.
Adult learning and professional development
Another reason for self-studying a GCSE or A-level is for professional development, as adults in full-time employment might want to gain an extra A-level to enhance their CV. Some people choose to do it because they want a career change, and self-studying for an A-level that will give them extra experience in this area means that they can become qualified for their desired new career while remaining in full-time employment.
There are a number of A-levels out there that are well-suited to this, such as A-level Accounting. Others might decide later in life that they want to return to university as a mature student, but need relevant A-levels before they can do this. Self-studying again means that they can acquire qualifications that will get them into university, while still working to fund their forthcoming degree.
Self-studying for an A-level while at university
It’s also conceivable that someone might want to study for an extra A-level while they’re at university as an undergraduate, although with the extra work added to an already large workload, this isn’t necessarily recommended. Motives for doing this might include gaining extra qualifications to enhance the CV (for instance, taking A-level English Language to bolster the CV in preparation for a career as a journalist), or to complement or support university work (for instance, taking A-level Further Maths to help support a Physics degree).
You might also want to take an A-level or GCSE to fill a hole in the qualifications you gained at school; for instance, you might not have gained a foreign language GCSE while you were at school, but you might want to do so now because it will be advantageous for your CV.
Options for studying an extra A-level alongside your normal schoolwork
There are two main options for self-studying an A-level when you’re still at school (and these are also options if it’s a GCSE you’re interested in). Let’s look at what’s involved in each of them, and at the pros and cons.
If you want to study with other people, you could study for your extra A-level in an evening class. This is a “self-study” option in that it’s something you undertake independently of your school, but your learning is still structured and taught to you by someone else (which is why we’re only mentioning this option briefly here).
The other option for studying for an extra A-level from home is to use a distance learning course. These work by sending you course materials in the post and putting you in touch with a tutor, to whom you send assignments for marking. You’ll probably also have access to online resources, as well as forums that allow you to chat to other students. You study the materials at home, in your own time, and enter for the exams as a private student. You can usually take the exams at a local school, and you’ll come out with exactly the same qualification as you would if you’d studied the entire thing at school. Popular choices for distance learning courses are the National Extension College and the Distance Learning Centre.
The good thing about this method of learning is that it’s very flexible. You usually get around 18 months’ support from a tutor, which should be enough to get you through the course, but it’s entirely up to you when you study. Theoretically, this allows you to study at your own pace; but in practice, you will be pushed for time if you’re going to be doing this alongside the A-levels you’re studying at school.
The main downside with distance learning is that it’s up to you to organise your own time and to motivate yourself to learn. You’ll be doing it on your own, rather than in a group of other students, and your only real guidance will be your tutor’s responses to your assignments.
Once you’ve overcome this difficulty, though, it makes you more independent and sets you up well for the kind of study you’ll be doing at university, which is much more self-directed than you’ll have been used to at school.
Top tips for self-studying an A-level while you’re still at school
If you’ve opted for evening classes, things are a little easier because your learning is structured for you. This section, therefore, assumes that you’re taking a distance learning course to complete your extra A-level.
Tell your school
It’s a good idea to tell your school what you’re doing, so that they know that you’re taking on this big extra commitment and can advise you if they think it’s affecting your school work.
Find out when the exams are
You’ll need to know straightaway when the exams for your extra A-level will be, so that you can ensure they don’t clash with any exams you’re taking for the A-levels you’re taking at school. You can take your exams at one of the National Extension College’s partner centres, or you can enter as a private candidate at your school, if they accept private candidates. Procedures for entering for exams will be explained to you in detail in your course material, so it’s not a huge stress, but it’s something you’ll need to be aware of and act upon.
Mapping out the year’s work
When you’re at school, you’re used to having someone else do all your timetabling for you. You don’t need to worry about making sure you’ve covered the entire syllabus in enough time for revision, because someone’s already mapped out the year’s work for you with this in mind. When you’re studying on your own, though, this becomes your responsibility. Before you begin the work, you’ll need to sit down and plan out what needs to be done, by when, dividing up the work into months and then weeks, and allowing a few weeks before the exams for revision and completing past papers. It’s crucial that you stick to this plan in order to get through all the assignments in time. Don’t forget to factor in time to receive assignments back from your tutor.
We’ve already noted the importance of an overarching yearly schedule, but day-to-day time managementis also critical when you’re trying to fit in an extra A-level on top of your existing academic commitments. According to the guidelines from the National Extension College, you’ll have 300 extra hours to fit in around your schoolwork, while the Distance Learning Centre says 700 hours; so careful planning is essential. Poor time management can lead to your grades suffering all round – not just in the extra A-level, but in the ones you’re doing at school.
You’ll know from your yearly schedule what you need to complete each week, and from there you can plan out how you’re going to fit in the time around the A-levels you’re doing at school. From there, you can schedule in a fixed amount of time each week to ensure that it gets done. You’ll need to be similarly organised about studying the A-levels you’re doing at school if you’re to stand a chance of juggling all this.
Unlike in a traditional classroom environment, your teacher isn’t there in front of you when you’re self-studying, and that makes it easy to forget that there is someone there to help you if you need it. If you’re having problems understanding a concept, or preparing for an assignment, it’s fine to send them an email asking for help. You can also take advantage of other resources, such as the online forums that you’ll have access to as part of your course.
Pay attention to the admin
When you’re self-studying an A-level via distance learning, it’s your responsibility to register yourself with the exam board and book yourself in for exams (you’ll need to pay a fee to do this). It’s vital that you do this, because if you don’t, you won’t be entered to sit the exam and you won’t get the A-level to show for your hard work.
A word of warning
Before pursuing the idea of taking an extra A-level, think carefully about whether you can really cope with the extra strain on your workload. An A-level isn’t a walk in the park; it’s anything between 300 and 700 hours of study for a full A-level (split 50/50 between AS and A2), and that’s a lot of extra time to find, even over a couple of years. It costs money, too; you’ll need to convince your parents that you’re going to be able to cope with the work, so that their investment doesn’t go to waste. What’s more, some subjects are harder to study at home than others; science subjects are generally more difficult, because they require you to conduct experiments, for which extra materials will be needed.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that if you’re taking an extra A-level and want to include it on your UCAS form to strengthen your university application, the universities you apply to might include it in their offer. This will really pile the pressure on you to achieve a certain grade, so only take it on if you’re sure you can do a good job in it. However, if you’re sure you can cope with the extra workload, you’ll be rewarded not just with an additional qualification, but with a range of new skills that will enhance your maturity and prospects.
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